FirstLINK looks for help through hard times

As the economy continues its downturn and people lose their jobs, many are turning to food pantries for assistance that never have before.

Pleas have gone out for donations to the Mid-Ohio Food Bank where pantries obtain their food.

Another group looking for assistance during these tough times are those answer phone calls at FirstLINK from people seeking referrals to a food pantries.
And the work load is getting heavier.

"It used to be we’d get busy around the 15th of the month," said one volunteer while trying to obtain information from the caller to be referred to a pantry.
"It’s not unusual for 20 people to be on hold at any one time," said Martha Weger, director of the RSVP program at FirstLINK.

"These people need some help," she told her RSVP advisory council and urged them to help round up volunteers. "Just four hours a week for five months will help."

People who want to go to a food pantry have to call the FoodLine for a referral. The people who answer the phones – both employees and volunteers – can schedule a visit during a three-day period. But people should be cautioned that they rarely get an appointment on the day they call.

"With all the demand on the pantries of late, we encourage people to call a day or two ahead of time," is a familiar phrase often used.

Some of the work load came a few months ago when FirstLINK started handling calls for the Lutheran Social Services pantry in Caldwell in southeastern Ohio. That means another 40 slots a day that are filled through the phone calls.

Marilee Chinnici-Zuercher, president of FirstLINK, knows first hand of the added work.

"In fiscal 2008, our calls surpassed the 300,000 mark for the first time," she told her board, her employees and volunteers at the annual Christmas party. "We’re on track to go beyond 400,000 calls this fiscal year."

Eighty percent of those calls she categorized as for "basic needs – food, clothing and shelter."

The first wave of employees and volunteers arrive by 7 a.m. and log into the phone system. People in need of services know when the phones start accepting calls. One recent morning 22 calls were on hold at 7 a.m. And the workload didn’t let up throughout the morning.

FirstLINK people who work with volunteers are trying as many different opportunities as possible.

Beth Eck, from training and volunteer services at FirstLINK, is even looking for corporate volunteers to come in and answer phones one day at a time.

When a person volunteers to answer the phones, the volunteer sits in with an established volunteer or an employee and listens to the phone calls and learns how to operate the computer program. When the new volunteer feels comfortable going it alone, he or she then is given a time slot which is most convenient.

Information about volunteering at FirstLINK or a volunteer position anywhere in Franklin County is available at 221-6766.

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